Recently I spent a few hours writing a blog post to be submitted to The Whiskey City Collaborative, a local Peoria blog. Originally, this post was an exercise in thinking about how communities can help schools become places that expand children’s worlds, and thus their opportunities, through field trips. As I wrote, I tried to reconcile this post with the explorations I have been conducting on Museum Questions, and realized that I have a new set of ideas about field trips, very different from those I had when I began the “Schools and Museums” series on this blog nearly a year ago. (Some of my original ideas can be found on this page, which I had intended to update but never did.)
First, there are two entirely separate types of museum field trips: Those created and led by teachers at museums, and those created and led by the museums themselves. Field trips led by teachers have a the potential to impact students in far greater ways than those generated by museums. This is because teacher-led field trips are an extension of the classroom, and thus demonstrate how the work of the classroom relates to the larger world. They are also led by people who know their students well.
But teacher-led field trips, like all lessons, have to be carefully designed to achieve their potential impact. This requires significant effort and investment on the part of the teachers. A scavenger hunt found online, or a worksheet used over and over regardless of where a specific class is in a unit, is not a carefully designed lesson. Because they take so much time and energy to prepare, effective teacher-led field trips will always be rare.
The second type of field trip, one created by a museum, is ultimately about exposure: exposing children to new places, objects, subjects, and ideas. This is particularly important for the children whose worlds are most narrow: lower-income students who may rarely have the opportunity to leave their neighborhoods, who do not vacation in distant places, whose parents may never take them to a museum or a play. When children’s school day is limited to testable subjects, those subjects become abstract and dull. Museums are a vehicle for exposing children to the things that one can discover and explore through reading and math, the reasons these subjects are worth learning, the things that one can see and do and learn and become when one grows up.
But exposure has become a bad word in the minds of funders and school administrators, and thus is taboo amongst museum educators. A grant proposal asking for funding for one-time visits, with the goal of exposing children to something new, would be tossed out by most funders. Museums argue that field trips cultivate critical thinking and disciplinary knowledge because without this claim, most schools will not allow a visit during the school day.
There is another problem with exposure: It is not a sufficient guide in program planning. Saying that field trips expose students to new things does not help museums design excellent field trip offerings. Good program design is guided by clear ideas about why something is important, and thus what the program needs to look like to be successful. But it is possible to simultaneously understand field trips as being about exposure and set clear goals that provide guidance in program design.
Another, perhaps larger, problem is that exposure is not an ending, but a beginning. Building on exposure to new things, helping students use their new-found interest or curiosity as a starting point for exploration, is the job of the teacher. Museum visits become important after students leave. Often – again, especially for lower-income students who may have limited access to books and computers in their homes, and limited access to people outside schools who can help them identify resources to answer the questions sparked by a museum visit – this requires someone at the school to help students find avenues to follow their curiosity. But in our current educational climate I do not think teachers understand this as their role in a museum field trip. Nor do they always have the freedom or time to do this follow up work back in the classroom.
This is not an end to my exploration of field trips, but a mid-point that leads to new questions. How can museums effectively communicate to teachers the role they can and should play in museums visits, and the importance of this role? How do we measure the types of impact that come from exposure to new ideas and objects? How can we position museum visits as a social justice initiative, helping ensure that all students have reasons to read, not just reading instruction?